Board members this week approved the county’s first silica sand mine by a vote of 3-2, allowing 19 acres in Saratoga Township to be devoted to the Nisbit Mine.
The booming domestic oil industry is making waves throughout the U.S., even in neighborhoods far from the nearest petroleum deposit. In portions of southeastern Minnesota, residents are concerned about the industry’s effort to mine silica sand, a necessary ingredient in the fracking process used to extract oil and gas from rock.
In rural Winona County, board members this week approved the county’s first frac-sand mine by a vote of 3-2, allowing 19 acres in Saratoga Township to be devoted to the Nisbit Mine. Mine developer Tom Rowekamp said the plant will hire four employees.
“A concern that I have is, we’re all of a sudden going to have this ‘uh-oh’ moment,” Winona County Board Commissioner Jim Pomeroy, a dissenting voice, told the local Winona Daily News. “It’s going to be too late. It’s tough to go backwards on permits.”
The board’s decision comes with requirements for dust control and protection of water quality. But residents say that’s not enough, noting that the health impact of sand facilities has not yet been fully evaluated. Rowekamp will also be required to pay for the impact the plant’s 140 daily truckloads have on area roads.
Prior to the vote, Pomeroy pleaded with the county board to consider a legal appeal presented by Winona county residents who want a full environmental review before frac sand permits are issued. The county board in April voted against the need for an environmental impact study for any future silica sand mine projects.
After the board’s vote, those who have fought tirelessly against the industry expressed their frustration with the decision.
“Do you represent the citizens? There’s no big clamoring in this county for people saying yes, we want frac sand mines,” Winona county resident Joe Morse told the county board, according to the Daily News.
In April, 35 members of the local Catholic Workers chapter were arrested after creating a human blockade that blocked truck access to two frac-sand facilities — a loading dock and a sand processing plant.
“It’s a small town and we’re talking about dramatic increase in truck traffic,” local resident and Catholic Workers member Matthew Byrnes told Mint Press News following his arrest. “A lot of people have concerns about dust getting all over the place and dust getting into the lungs of their children.”
An issue of health
Those who aren’t on board with silica sand mining in Minnesota point to the unknowns. Health concerns related to silica sand mining have not fully been studied.
Speaking to the issue at a February Joint Senate Environment and Energy Committee and House Energy Policy Committee hearing, John Stine, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency testified that there “is very little data” on the health impacts related to those living near frac-sand mining facilities, plants included.
What is known is that crystalline silica is a carcinogen. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration indicates in its fact sheet that exposure poses a serious threat to those who work directly in the blasting and drilling of the resource.
“The seriousness of the health hazards associated with silica exposure is demonstrated by the fatalities and disabling illnesses that continue to occur in sandblasters and rock drillers,” OSHA’s fact sheet states.
OSHA has established a maximum exposure level for all workers in the industry — it’s measured based on an 8-hour work day. The question now is what the impact will be to those living near frac sand plants, as there is no way to guarantee sand particles will be contained to the mine site.
University of Wisconsin professor Crispin Pierce is leading the way in analysis on the risk of silica sand mining on the population living near mines. In a February interview with Mint Press News, he said experts still do not fully understand the impact this growing industry will have on local communities.
What is certain is that there is a reason for those living near silica sand mining operations to be concerned, Pierce said.
Minnesota’s fight to protect land from industry
So far, nine mines have been given the go-ahead in Minnesota, all located in the silica-rich bluff region of the state’s southeast, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. In addition, there are half a dozen proposed mines, along with another half-dozen silica sand processing plants.
In February, a group of community members boarded a bus bound for the state capitol, where they joined hundreds of other southern Minnesota residents concerned about an industry that seemed to be moving into their backyards without warning.
Those present at the meeting demanded a moratorium on the frac-sand industry and a full environmental review before permits are issued. That notion was rejected by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who said he would veto any frac-sand moratorium bill that made it to his desk.
Instead, Dayton said he favored allowing counties to regulate the industries themselves. Yet for those living in Winona County, that’s not good enough. Other counties, including Houston and Goodhue, have moratoriums, but residents know they won’t last forever. And when they are lifted, the state will still lack the comprehensive environmental impact study residents seek.
Many of those who made the trip to the capitol have learned from their neighbors to the east what can happen if enhanced regulations — or a moratorium — are not put in place before the industry moves ahead.
“We know what the dangers are,” Bobby King, director of the Minnesota Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota, said at a press conference. “We went over to Wisconsin. They (oil companies) push a lot of money around. There are spills, air problems and property value problems.”
According to Wisconsin Watch, a project of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, frac-sand mining and processing operations in the state doubled from 2011 to 2012, with a July 2012 count of 87 mines and sand-related facilities. In May, that count was up to 165, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.
For those living in areas impacted by the mining boom, life hasn’t been pleasant. Concerned Chippewa Citizen, representing residents of the Chippewa Falls area, emerged as an organization dedicated to exposing the industry — and has worked alongside Minnesotans attempting to save their state from Wisconsin’s fate.
According to the Concerned Chippewa Citizen website, the group was created “to head off the devastation of our rural economy, family farms, small businesses, property values, health, safety and quality of life.”
Even as frac-sand mining in Wisconsin is growing, the organization remains active, reporting spills to the DNR and constantly demanding more oversight. In May, the DNR requested more staff to keep up with its frac-sand monitoring operations.
In Minnesota, residents are continuously learning from Wisconsin, searching for avenues to keep the industry out of their backyards.
After losing the moratorium push, residents in the southern part of the state partnered with fishing enthusiasts to push for a frac-sand mining ban near trout streams.
Lawmakers came to a compromise in late May with community members and the fishing community, creating a new DNR permit allowing for greater scrutiny and a hydrological study on the impact of frac-sand mining near the habitats.
It wasn’t a total win, but it was a step in the direction community members hope the state will follow, Winona residents included.